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Originally published April 27, 2007 at 12:00 AM | Page modified April 27, 2007 at 8:16 PM

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Obituary

Populist not afraid to speak his mind

Charlie Chong, who rode a wave of discontent about neglected potholes and neighborhoods into City Hall and a prominent role in Seattle politics...

Seattle Times staff reporter

Charlie Chong, who rode a wave of discontent about neglected potholes and neighborhoods into City Hall and a prominent role in Seattle politics, has died.

Former City Councilmember Chong, 80, died Thursday.

Known as a colorful populist who spoke simply, thought practically and gave voice to many who felt disenfranchised, Mr. Chong "inspired people to participate" in local government, said Jay Sauceda, his former council aide.

"He reinvigorated city politics and paved the way for the election of people like Nick Licata, Peter Steinbrueck and Judy Nicastro who weren't part of mainstream politics," said John Fox, coordinator of the Seattle Displacement Coalition.

Mr. Chong began his political career in 1996, running against a City Hall that some perceived as focused on glitzy downtown projects at the expense of the average citizen.

While on the council, he made headlines for trying to secure used snowplows after a blizzard paralyzed Seattle. While the bureaucrats hesitated, the city of Bellevue bought the plows, handing Mr. Chong new ammunition to criticize City Hall's indecision.

"Charlie was very pragmatic," Sauceda said. "In Seattle ... where we process the hell out of issues, it was refreshing to have a politician who wasn't afraid to speak his mind."

Mr. Chong gave up his seat to run for mayor in 1997 and lost to Paul Schell. At the time, he told reporters he was running because "we're riding an upswelling of resentment that might not be here two years from now."

In 1999, he tried to win back a council seat, but he lost to newcomer Heidi Wills who was four decades his junior. Mr. Chong again ran unsuccessfully for mayor in 2001.

Walt Crowley, a local historian and executive director of Historylink.org, said Chong "articulated the fear and alienation of a lot of people in the neighborhood. At the time, people were feeling that City Hall, the City Council was not responsive to them," especially when it came to development.

Chong led a resistance to urban villages and more buildings going up downtown, according to Crowley, who communicated via his wife Marie McCaffrey after recent larynx surgery.

While his sharp critiques made him popular with the public, "he never mastered the inside game that would have made him effective" on a larger political stage," Crowley said.

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Crowley didn't share his political views, but respected him.

"He was always polite and a very genteel campaigner," he said, and he was fun.

In recent years, he kept a lower profile, dabbling in a few issues such as the Alaskan Way Viaduct and Pike Place Market. Much of his time, though, was spent tending to his garden.

His legacy can be seen in the work of neighborhood-focused council members, such as Licata and Steinbrueck, and in the more than $250 million in new library, parks and community-center projects that neighborhood activists have steered to their leafy streets since the late 1990s.

Mr. Chong was raised on a plantation on the island of Maui, the sixth of 13 children.

He joined the Army, earned a degree in foreign service from Georgetown University in Washington, D.C., and served in the Air Force.

From 1958 to 1963, Mr. Chong was executive vice president of a canning company in Minnesota. From 1964 to his retirement in 1983, he worked for a federal anti-poverty program.

Mr. Chong, who had no children, was married to Mary Pearson. Sauceda, who slept on the hospital couch Wednesday night to be with Mr. Chong, said "My message to him was he made a profound impact on me and gave me and so many people hope."

Bob Young: 206-464-2174 or byoung@seattletimes.com. Staff reporters Mike Lindblom and Sharon Pian Chan contributed to this report, which also includes material from Seattle Times archives.

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